Page 99

“You may be a lady with the ears of a dog, but I’ve the eyes of a hawk,” he said, pointing up at the top of the Phimeanakas, the temple across the way. Hundreds of steep stairs led up to the grand entrance…and to a wavering blanket of air that sparkled like its own starry sky. “And I do believe that is the passage we’ve been searching for.”

IT SEEMED TO NICHOLAS THAT the key to passing through these time gates and landing on your feet lay squarely in the approach, and required a great deal of faith in your balance.

A confident stride through the rippling air resulted in only the slightest push as you came through to the other side—you emerged at a brisk walk, rather than feeling as if you were being shot from a cannon. There was no way around the disorienting pressure and darkness on the journey, but if your mind knew to expect it, there were ways to prepare for the strike.

Etta released a soft “Oofph!” as her feet struck the floor, and they were suddenly wrapped in cool, dry air. Nicholas’s grip on her hand tightened as the world fell into place around them.

They weren’t falling off the side of a cliff. They hadn’t been shot dead on sight, run through by sword or bayonet. And they hadn’t emerged into a crocodile-filled swamp, or in the middle of a crowded market, or for that matter, in a burning building. So he supposed he should be grateful. But he was mostly exhausted.

He had no way of knowing what time it was, only that it was clearly night; hopefully, the same night as the one they had just left in Cambodia. Distant voices prickled in his ears, the words muffled by distance or cast in a lyrical language he couldn’t decipher. It was as if the air itself had been seasoned with the richest and rarest of spices, so thick he was certain he could taste it on his tongue. The breeze carried other scents that were familiar and strange all at once—there, beneath the warm sweat of beasts of burden and smoke, were notes of a heady, floral fragrance.

His eyes eventually adjusted to the darkness, well enough for him to make out the shapes around him. The room was large, and there appeared to be an elaborate wooden bed in the far corner, as well as some sort of desk or table, so laden with piles of objects that he couldn’t quite tell what it was.

Etta fumbled around the room, and with a flash of white, pulled a sheet off of the chair it covered. She did the same with another sheet, uncovering a low table stacked with newspapers and books.

“Some sort of home?” he ventured. The passage’s gate thrummed behind them. The sound wouldn’t fade entirely, but within an hour it would start to lessen.

“An apartment,” Etta agreed, stepping closer to the bed. “Here—here, matches.” She held up a small book of them. “Do you see any candles?”

Matches had yet to be invented in his time, but Julian had showed him how to use them during their travels—how to strike the small strips of wood against the rough strip on the jacket containing them. Clever little buggers. As Nicholas marveled again at this small luxury, singeing multiple fingertips as he located a few half-melted candles, Etta moved toward the shutters lining the far wall.

“Don’t—” he said, catching her arm. “Not yet.”

They didn’t need to open themselves up to being caught by someone passing on the street below.

Etta stepped back, holding her hands in the air. “All right, all right. Should we light a fire?”

Nicholas glanced toward the small fireplace, but shook his head. They could use the additional glow from the hearth to see, but the smoke might also draw undesirable attention. “Leave it for now. If you’re chilled, I’ll warm you.”

Etta laughed, pushing him away playfully. What surprised him, perhaps more than his disappointment, was the way her eyes lit at his words, sparking the way the matches had.

Stop this, he commanded himself, ripping away the nearest bed cloth to reveal a distinctly European leather chair. What did it matter that she was clearly as intrigued as he was, that she’d looked at him as though he was the last treasure to be had in the world? Why be so eager to allow her to capture his heart, when it would lead to precisely one thing: nothing?

And yet, he was gripped by the images glittering through his mind, flashing like the sunlight on open water: the memory of her melting beneath his hands, how she’d tasted of rain and earth and sweetness—

There were countless mirrors and portraits to be uncovered, all of which had been taken from their hooks and leaned against the wall, frames and all. English ladies from his time, powdered and pouting; French princesses whose silk gowns seemed to drip from their bodies; fierce Spanish ladies. So the owner clearly recognized beauty when he saw it—tried to collect it and hoard it. He—or she, he supposed—also seemed to love nothing so dearly as landscapes of green pastures. Nicholas made a disgusted face as he turned the next painting around to reveal…yet another scene of sheep idling in a flower-spotted field.

Leaving the paintings for a moment, he turned to a large bench-size object covered with another cloth; upon whipping off the cloth, he found himself staring into the snarling face and exceptionally long, talon-like teeth of a tiger.

He fell back onto the ornately woven red rug beneath them and lay on his back, stunned, as a shower of fine dust fell over him.

“You get that out of your system?” Etta asked, stepping around his prone form. His hand lashed out, closing around her ankle like an iron. The woman was mad if she thought he’d let her take another step forward—

“It’s dead,” she said, looking down at him with an amused smile. “As gross as it is, it’s been preserved and stuffed to be displayed. Look.”